110 – The Ascension

Giotto, The Ascension of Christ, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Welcome back to Scrovegni Saturday – and I mean the Saturday bit specifically! Having said that, I think there are only two more to go. One next week (or the week after, to be honest), to look at the final image, and a ‘coda’ to sum things up. On Tuesday I went to a library for the first time since we went into lockdown – the British Library, no less – and I can recommend the experience. They have put all sorts of systems in place which meant that I felt totally secure – a one-way route, allocated desks, allotted times… Unfortunately, given the way things fell out, I could only stay for an hour. I had ordered three books on the Scrovegni Chapel (what else?!), and oh, how useful they would have been for this endeavour! I only had time to skim through them, to look at the way they are organised, and illustrated, but I will give you a brief summary in a couple of weeks should you be interested in ‘further reading’. And maybe by then I will have had the chance to go back and read them properly!

Today, though, I want to think about The Ascension of Christ, a subject which I discussed on the feast day itself, which this year fell on 21 May. The picture was by Pietro Perugino, painting at his poised and elegant best. Do look it up (Picture Of The Day 64) to remind yourself about the narrative and its source in the bible.

Giotto has painted Jesus at the very top of the image – so far up, in fact, that his fingers are hidden behind the inner green frame of the nearly-square field. This is a standard ploy to convey the sense of movement – indeed, in many medieval versions of the Ascension all that remain to be seen are his feet. The upward motion is conveyed in other ways too – the fact that all the figures kneeling on the ground are looking up, for one thing. The two angels occupying the central space are looking down to this ‘audience’, and point upwards, not only indicating Jesus’s direction of travel, but also directing the kneeling figures – and us – to look up towards him. I’m fairly sure Perugino would have known this image: he certainly uses the same technique, with angels pointing the way. This wouldn’t be his only quotation from the Scrovegni Chapel.

On either side of Jesus are more figures, whose gestures of prayer and praise add to the swooping, upward movement. All of the figures have haloes, and those in the lower row also have wings – they are angels. However, those in the upper row are not – no wings – so they must be souls of the formerly ‘mortal’ already in heaven. The only ones I would want to identify (this is where those books might have come in useful!) are the two closest to Jesus. My guess would be (and that’s all it is) that these are John the Baptist (on our left) and Adam. After all, Jesus would have seen them – and freed them from their bonds – during the Harrowing of Hell, a scene which is notably absent from the Scrovegni Chapel (but see POTD 24 and POTD 25).

Down below we see the apostles and Mary. Unlike Perugino, who seemed to include a couple of excess apostles, Giotto sticks to what I would think is the logical number – eleven. Judas is dead, having hung himself with guilt (he can be seen hanging among the damned in hell in the Last Judgement as it happens), and Matthias has not yet been appointed to take his place. Mary is slightly separated from the other figures, and more central: both of these features help to emphasize her status. She is also, if Jesus were to face forward, at her son’s right hand, always the position of honour. Immediately behind her (to our left) is Peter, in his mustard yellow cloak, his left hand raised to shield his eyes as he follows Jesus’s progression heavenwards. Next to him is John the Evangelist, and behind him, in the foreground, St Andrew, who has been a prominent figure throughout the frescoes of the lower two tiers. The only other apostle I would identify with any security is St Bartholomew, who, for reasons I have never fathomed, often has the most elaborately patterned clothing. Now that I’ve said that you will see him straight away!

Not only is Jesus heading up towards heaven, but he is moving from left to right – the direction of the narrative in almost all of the images in this cycle. As a result, he looks not a little like Hope, one of the three theological virtues we saw in POTD 45. As so often, this echo is deliberate, and profound. The virtue of Hope is an ambivalent one. With true Faith, you might assume that hope was not necessary – but ‘hoping for’ in this context would effectively mean ‘waiting in full expectation of’. I’ve cropped the fresco here, but Hope is reaching up towards a crown being held by an angel in the top right of the field: it is the crown awarded to the blessed on arrival in heaven. And, positioned as it is on the South wall, the figure reaches towards the image of heaven on the West wall. Jesus, likewise, is heading towards heaven – not just in terms of the narrative, but physically, in the chapel. There are two images of heaven, one at either end. Above the chancel arch God the Father sits enthroned in a section of the painting which is on a wooden support (POTD 80 – but more about that in a couple of weeks).

If you can see The Ascension towards the bottom right of this image, you will see that Jesus’s direction of travel will take him towards the top of the chancel arch, which would be directly to our right when looking at this wall. Jesus is about to enter heaven, and Hope lives in expectation of the same.

This particular image also reminds us that, on the North wall, there are decorative panels between the vertically arranged pictures, and in the lower two tiers (dealing with the life of Christ), these contain vignettes relating to a typological interpretation of the bible – I’ve discussed some of these already in POTD 100. They always refer to the picture which follows, the one which is just to the right of them. They don’t seem to be discussed very often, probably because they are so small, but they are significant. I can’t even find an image of the one to the left of the Crucifixion, but it shows Moses with the brazen serpent. While the Israelites were on their long journey in search of the promised land, they were attacked by a plague of serpents, which threatened to kill them all. God advised Moses to erect a sculpture of a serpent made of bronze (hence ‘brazen’), promising that anyone who saw it would be cured. Given that the serpents were threatening death, from which you could only be saved by looking at something raised up above ground level, it seemed fairly obvious to early Christian theologians that this was in some way related to the Crucifixion, when Christ was raised up on the cross. After all, anyone who looked on him would be saved from serpent-related sin. The brazen serpent was therefore identified as a ‘type’ of Christ at the Crucifixion. This is ‘type’, as in ‘typeface’ – the shape or form that would ‘print’ the proper image.

In this image we can see the vignettes which precede The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, The Resurrection, and, even though the scene itself isn’t included, The Ascension. However, they are rather small – so here they are on their own:

In between The Crucifixion and The Lamentation we can see an enormous fish swallowing a person. This is Jonah, who, according to the eponymous book, was swallowed by a ‘great fish’. It was not a whale. That was Pinocchio. However, regardless of species, genus or even class, Jonah was thrown overboard and was swallowed, ‘And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights’ (Jonah 1:17), after which he delivered God’s message to the people of Nineveh and they were saved. According to the Apostles’ Creed, as translated in the Book of Common Prayer (1662), Jesus,

Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven…

The similarity between Jonah’s ‘three days and three nights’ and Jesus rising on ‘The third day’ is striking. Having been eaten by a fish, Jonah should surely have died, but he was regurgitated as if resurrected. So Jonah’s experience was a type for the death and resurrection of Christ. Here we see just the death – disappearing into the fish – preceding the image in which we see Jesus dead. So what is represented before the resurrection? Well, it’s a lion (it has a mane), which appears to be roaring at three cubs. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, said that lion cubs were born unformed, and that their mothers had to lick them into shape. However, the medieval mind had a different point of view, which might have evolved from Pliny, or, from the same animal behaviour (cleaning the newly born cubs, whose eyes are closed) which Pliny had misinterpreted. It was widely believed that lion cubs were born dead, and that after three days their father breathed life into them – which is what he is doing here. One of the cubs is apparently still ‘dead’, while another looks more alert. The third, on the right, is actually looking quite perky. It’s a bit like an animation. The connection to the resurrection of Christ, on the third day, through the agency of God the Father, is clear, telling us that it is not just elements of the Hebrew scriptures that can be ‘types’ but the whole of God’s creation. In the third example, which precedes the Ascension, there is another, more traditional type. In 2 Kings 2:11, Elijah had been preparing Elisha for his departure, when the following happened:

11 And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

Elijah was only the second person to get to heaven without dying (the first being Enoch – although the bible is not entirely clear whether he was taken by God dead or alive), but Elijah and the Chariot of Fire are a fairly obvious type for the ascension of Christ, and Giotto makes the angle of departure similar for both. Elisha’s face can just be seen, as can his hand reaching up for Elijah’s mantle, ‘which fell from him’.

These details may be small, but they are significant, and add so much depth to the interpretation of the chapel – I could so easily finish here. But in the same way that I ended with what I called ‘the story of Mary Magdalene’ last week, this week I’d like to finish with a ‘story of Jesus’. It’s just a small part of the narrative, obviously – two whole tiers of the decoration are concerned with the life, death and afterlife of Jesus, after all – but like last week’s ‘triptych’, this one episode is beautifully and poetically represented using body language and composition alone. Even without the other people present in each image, I think the narrative would be clear.

In The Lamentation Jesus is dead. He lies at the bottom of the image, on the far left. In The Resurrection he is standing, his feet now on the ground, his head higher than that of the kneeling Mary Magdalene, and some way to the right of her. As Jesus said, ‘I am not yet ascended to my Father’ (John 20:17) – but his elbow is hidden by the frame, he is on his way out. In The Ascension, mother Mary kneels as her namesake did before, and again Jesus is higher and to the right – although this time, at a far steeper angle. Jesus has left the ground, and his fingers are behind the frame. Like the lion cubs we have something like an animation, an animation of resurrection and ascension.

I love the fact that these two elements of the narrative overlap. When seen on the wall of the chapel, as in the illustration above, a line drawn between Mary Magdalene’s face and Jesus’s hand in the Resurrection continues to the face of Christ in the Ascension: Mary’s repentance means that she is looking towards heaven. There is an insistent upward movement along most of this wall, from the slope of the hill in the Lamentation and Mary’s gaze in the Resurrection to the direction of travel in both the Elijah vignette and the Ascension. And, while we’re there, have another look at the position of the Ascension on the wall: Jesus’s entry into heaven is immediately underneath his entry into Jerusalem. He could so easily leave this picture and enter through the same gate.

There is one more image to go – but I’m afraid it will have to wait for a while. Next week – and I really can’t quite believe this – I will be in Italy. I’ll let you know how it goes – and get back to you as soon as I can!

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

6 thoughts on “110 – The Ascension

  1. Have a lovely holiday and thank you for the excellent interpretation of the Giotto’s decoration of the Scrovegni chapel


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